Artist Spotlight: Wussy

Artist Spotlight courtesy of Callipygian Pigeon

A month ago, Dikachu posted a thread about concerts you would see if you had a time machine. Wussy’s first concert didn’t make my cut because I still have a hard time imagining it could be good:

In the thereabouts of 2001, Chuck Cleaver was performing a solo show in his hometown of Cincinnati. His band, Ass Ponys, was on hiatus but not quite officially dissolved. They had gotten a small amount of mainstream recognition for maybe the most 90s music video ever to play on MTV, though “Earth to Grandma” wasn’t as weird as their Flying Nun-as-American-grotesque jangle pop jams (when they dropped Columbus label OKra for A & M, their style cleaned up).

Anyway, so the middle-aged Cleaver was alone in this venue when he spots a classically-trained twentysomething from Muncie he had seen around at other concerts, and she knew the words to one of his songs. So he asks this one Lisa Walker to sing with him, scribbling the rest of the lyrics on napkins and telling her to follow along. Maybe they didn’t know at the time that their harmonies were god-level—in the company of Exene and John Doe, Kim and Thurston, Georgia and Ira, Richard and Linda—but when they added Mark Messerly on bass and Dawn Burman on drums, we all found out anyway.

In 2005 they released their debut, Funeral Dress, and developed a cabal of devotees presided over by Robert Christgau, for whom proselytizing for Wussy has become a sort of pet project. End-to-end, Funeral Dress may still be their best album, kicked off by the crossed-wires kiss-off of “Airborne.”

Opening with Cleaver’s voice crunched through a telephone earpiece, recounting the final phone call of a troubled relationship, halfway through the second verse the perspective switches to Walker, who gets her say in the third. Under and around them, Cleaver’s lead line flutters while Walker’s guitar gradually swaddles itself with more and more distortion. Nobody said shoegaze until Walker brought it up last year, and you could hear critics smacking their heads in open-floor offices across the country. This is what it would sound like if chainsaws had feelings. Burman’s quick-stepping drums are a blueprint for Wussy’s simple, clean structures—she lets you hear what’s coming, formalism as fatalism. For all of its deep melodic and rhythmic pleasures, their relentless attention to psychology (both lyrically and musically) cuts to the quick. For all of their romantic-existential dread, the capacity for tenderness and love remains real, but remains only a capacity. (To be able to hold requires emptiness.) Having two equally-matched singers means that neither is ever left alone, but neither are they ever left alone.

This isn’t a template for healthy romance, but then again Wussy isn’t about healthy anything. Their songs are obsessed with the inevitability of death; an uncaring Divine; self-destructive relationships; and the Midwestern landscape, which they imagine as a combination of the foundationally grotesque and transcendental (they’ve read their Flannery O’Connor). In “Rigor Mortis,” from their second album, Left for Dead, all of these concerns twist into the beautiful couplet, “We can go out to the country, you can drive my car around / We will drive away from nothing and count crosses that I’ve found.” Left for Dead might be my favorite of their albums—9 perfect songs, but two of their biggest whiffs. Just listening to it again for this post, my favorite song has shifted twice. I think it’s “Mayflies” now (“Never meant to be so mean / First time comes for everything”, “Angels just won’t let it be / Always picking fights with me”). I’m continually drawn to the industrial “Melody Ranch,” which I’m not much closer to understanding than I was four years ago, but in the codependent, interlocking “What’s His Name,” Cleaver (per his wont) wields an idiom like a scalpel and Walker delivers the line “Baby, I’m in love” with something like aggressive resignation—it takes genius to layer as many emotions as they do here.

(I would post “Millie Christine,” which I think is brilliant but has an essay of American history attached to it.)

Their self-titled third album followed the merely grim with a relentless, fatalistic record of doomed romance. Reportedly Cleaver and Walker’s, and while that’s not a fan’s business they became the breakup band par excellence. Have you crushing existential dread? Formative romantic regrets? The overpowering sense that the American landscape is a wasteland of meager, hand-to-mouth pleasures adrift in an actively hostile void? Do these anxieties feed off of each other like an ouroboros, soon to consume you whole? This is the cd for you! No allegories in sight, no fairy tales or figures from history. Just 12 songs of curdling loneliness. I mean good lord just take a gander at the tracklist: “Happiness Bleeds,” “Scream and Scream Again,” “This Will Not End Well,” “Death by Misadventure.” “Scream” is a hard, pure gem of mortal fear. It’s kind of amazing that they can pull it off without sending fans into catatonic despair. Credit, probably, Burman, who keeps things moving with simple thump-and-snaps and can turn a four-four into a shuffle. Credit, too, Messerly’s bass, which has a serpentine pulse that buoys Walker and Cleaver’s charging guitars that might otherwise drown in distortion. But really, final credit to the incredible perception of the songwriters, and delivery that turns wit into beauty.

The sky is falling everywhere
But you don’t have to be afraid
It’s just bombs bursting in the air
For the Independence Day parade
And the stars, faster than muscle cars
Are racing here to see
If you’ll talk, talk to me

After the self-titled, Joe Klug replaced Burman on drums, and the first album he recorded with them was intended to be a lark: a front-to-back acoustic version of Funeral Dress for Record Store Day. From their bandcamp: “Just to see what would happen, in the fall of 2010 Wussy sat down on the couch at Ultrasuede, popped open a few beers, uncorked some wine (may have been a screw cap – not sure) & played the Funeral Dress record from beginning to end with a few acoustic guitars and little else.” I wonder if they expected that it would become as treasured as their canon records, but so it is: spare and uncomfortably intimate, attending closely to Walker’s improvisational brilliance with her melodies (I’ve seen them a couple of times, plus like every video on youtube, and she never sings exactly the same way twice).

Before recording their fourth full-length, they also added former Ass Pony John Erhardt jamming on lap-steel, and Strawberry quakes with the two additions. In a way, they operate at cross-purposes: Klug is an architect, battering lopsided shapes into anxious structures, while Erhardt takes things cosmic and deconstructed. Wussy’s sound, previously a legible if demented drone rock, warps into something pummeling and grandiose. Their sense of space explodes, and returns to the songwriting as a new understanding of doom. Where their earlier albums seemed to take dread at face value, with Strawberrythey resurrect the archaic usage as fatally awesome. It’s the sound of a swirling universe, all coils and vortices of energy enclosing you and spinning away. It bores into the hard core of transcendence, a mystical combination of labor and passivity. A strange side effect is that many of the songs feel like anthems without bearing the form’s obvious identifiers. The build-plateau-reset makes Strawberry exhausting, in a way, even though the most purely anthemic song is called “Pizza King”: the drums surge and the guitars swell to high heaven as Walker shouts “YOU’RE PASSING THE TIME.” That’s as close as to rousing as they can manage, and maybe such a mundane success doesn’t provide uplift widely enough to let them quit their days jobs. Sure gets to me though. The songs about asteroids, flying horses, the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, and desolation culminate with the epic “Little Miami.” At six minutes, their longest song, using every second to build to a climactic, existentialist reassurance:

Everywhere the rocks are falling
And you are just another piece
Of all the birds that make a circle
Are you not more than one of these?

So as a personal aside, this is where I checked in with Wussy. I bought Funeral Dress and for a month I alternated nothing but that and Tristen’s Charlatans at the Garden Gate (she’s Jenny Lewis’s touring keyboardist and is wonderful). So I loved it. When I was flying back home, I decided to buy the rest of their cds in one go from bandcamp. I do this, and Lisa Walker sends me a thank you email. This is how non-popular they were.

Now, here’s where something interesting happens. In 2014, Wussy releases Attica! It’s by an order of magnitude their weirdest cd to date, but it kind of makes them popular? At least, it’s the first to be reviewed by Pitchfork (a respectable 7.8). Christgau finally bestows upon them a coveted A+. To my ears, less than half of Attica! would fit into any of their other albums. They experiment with trippy sonics, brutal sludge, and, strangest of all, actual happiness rather than tempered tenderness. It’s like a magic trick: their to-date (but… we’ll get there) darkest-sounding cd has some of their most joyful expressions of love, for people and for the very experience of being alive. Where is the precedent for the coda of “To the Lightning”: “Bide your time and when the time arises rise and shine and let me go.” Also, where is the precedent for its theremin? Or the delicate cross-harmonics of “Home”? Or the communion-with-the-present polaroid of “North Sea Girls”?

So now we catch up to this year, with their latest album released just a few months ago and which I’m still trying to make heads or tails of. I told my friend when it came out, “This is what I was worried Wussy would start to sound like after Attica!, but they pull it off.” Forever Sounds brought a fresh wave of mainstream press, even though this one’s stranger than Attica! and every lyric that unpacks itself is caustic. Somehow over the past few cds, their popularity has become proportional to their abstraction. The bass grinds along the floor, the tempos generally slowed to a stomp, thick clouds of distortion swallowing lines like “It’s been nearly two years, we had barely begun / And now you’ve undressed 700 more times and I’ve missed every one.” (This is said by a ghost.) Even the song about watching The Big Lebowski is a ballad for Donny, the eulogy he never quite got. They replace microscopic Midwestern realism for cosmic vistas, and while I sometimes wonder if that’s a net loss, it allows them pull one over like “Hand of God,” which equates a shift in time signature to a divine revelation—and I believe them.

I’ve seen Wussy twice. Same tour, opposite coasts. Their first time in LA, at the Silverlake Lounge, where they were band three of five unrelated groups on tour. It showed, hustling on and off stage like the people with day jobs they are (Walker a server at a vegan restaurant, Cleaver a stonemason, Klug and Messerly teachers. No one bothered to ask about Burman or Erhardt I guess.) I saw them eating at a vegan Indian place while I was walking around before the show. In New York, where my friend and I timed my visit to coincide with the show and to which we dragged our partners, we were the youngest people in the audience by about twenty years. Every second person seemed to have a partner they dragged there though. My friend and I were waiting for our partners outside the bathrooms when Cleaver walked out instead.

Friend: “Oh, Chuck, I’d like you to meet your biggest fan.” *gestures at me*

All the blood in my body: *rushes to face*

Chuck: *shakes my hand* “Okay, I gotta get out there.”

Robert Christgau was at that one, looking hale, and for the encore requested “Breakfast in Bed” and looked at me like “Get it?” but I didn’t. Messerly told me he was going to get back surgery and he let me take the setlist. Cleaver had this way of rolling his eyes back in his head when he sang falsetto, and used his empty beer can as a slide when they really opened up. Walker sang like she was telling us something. But she wasn’t: at the edge of the stage, looking right into Walker’s nostrils, my partner and I were holding hands, and we were in love.

The gravedigger’s sad for all the things that go unsaid
It’s hard to have a life while you are living in your head
Now that she is missing, I can see most of the cracks
But I still miss her laughing when the conversation lags.

They were not telling us anything.

A few months after the concert, I broke up with my partner. Then they were telling me something.

“Maybe you could have avoided it, been smarter about it, gentler or more open or more understanding; maybe your cruelty surprised you, or maybe theirs did. When death comes for you, you’ll still be sad about it. And it feels like it’s coming a little faster now, doesn’t it?

Too bad.

Happens to everyone.

We understand.

We made you this baptism of electricity.”

I listened to a lot of Wussy afterward. Still do—it’s still afterward.